PORTLAND, Maine — Maine's lobster industry has been innovating and adapting for 200 years, Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday. At a press conference outside of Luke's Lobster in Portland, she announced a plan that would transform, not just that sector, but the entire seafood industry into the future.
Mills' Seafood Infrastructure Investment Program will provide $10 million in grants to any seafood dealers and processors around Maine to upgrade infrastructure and equipment.
“The COVID-19 pandemic hit the industry hard," Mills said. “A range of funding will be offered, including smaller grants for facility improvements and larger grants for capital projects.”
The funding from the governor's Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan will be awarded in grants starting early in 2022. Mills and Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the funds should be awarded by March, and there is one application for any business regardless of the seafood sector.
Luke Holden, founder, and CEO of Luke's Lobster said the pandemic forced the restaurant and business to adapt to direct distribution and online sales, which became exponentially more expensive.
"This type of support coming from the state is appreciated, but 100 percent necessary," Holden said.
As the traditional Maine industry looks to move into the future, many lobstermen and fishermen are getting involved in aquaculture farming to diversify their income during the off-season.
“They use the same boats, the same gear, the same social license," Atlantic Sea Farms CEO Bri Warner said. “The more impact we can have here in the coast of Maine by allowing more people to get in the water, farm kelp and make a supplemental income source in the face of climate change.”
Warner's company has been producing a lot more kelp in recent years. She said the business has produced 30,000 pounds of kelp to an increase of one million pounds this year.
More aquaculture companies are experiencing similar trends, according to Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.
“A diverse sector means we would be more resilient in the face of challenges, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s market disruptions, whether it’s cost of inputs," he said. "The more kinds of stuff we grow, and the more ways we grow it, means we are more likely to be a viable and resilient sector in the future.”
He said the diversification is growing strong as the pandemic continues to impact the industry. This is all happening as more aquaculture farmers are getting started in the business and growing more species around Maine.
There is no set grant amount per awarded business, Mills and Keliher said. Keliher is hopeful the grant program could increase to $15 million total with the extra money coming from the federal CARES Act.
Mills said the projects that could be awarded funding include utility upgrades, processing, and manufacturing investment, packaging equipment, and technology that increases business reliance.
The next generation of one of Maine's most traditional industries is here, and this investment will look to assist in its transformation.